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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:34 03/09/2007
Commentary (July 26, 2005)

Six-Party Talks: Prospects for Success

Ralph A. Cossa (President of the Pacific Forum CSIS)

The Six-Party Talks aimed at ending North Korea's nuclear weapons programs are set to resume in Beijing July 26 after a 13-month hiatus. But what are the prospects for success? Some, particularly in China and South Korea, see the mere act of talking as progress . . . and certainly talking is better than not talking. But it is clearly not enough.

The U.S., for one, has made it clear that it is expecting some movement toward its ultimate goal: the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, a goal that, at least on paper, the other five parties (China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and even North Korea) profess to share. "We don't intend to engage in talks for talks' sake," insisted U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. In fact, all six parties, in one way or another, have said they want to see real progress made at this fourth plenary session.

Progress is possible if Pyongyang is serious about trading away its nuclear programs and Washington is equally serious about cutting a deal. There are some positive indications that this may finally be the case. North Korean leader Kim Jong-il reportedly told visiting ROK Unification Minister Chung Dong-Young that the 1992 Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula was the "dying wish" of his father and was "still valid." This gives the junior Kim the political cover he needs (if, in fact, he really needs political cover, as some analysts suggest) to press on with denuclearization. Of note, the 1992 Declaration, while not ruling out nuclear power plants (the ROK has several of them) also prohibits reprocessing, which has (rightfully) been one of Washington's major concerns about Pyongyang's "peaceful" nuclear energy program.

Washington has also indicated that it is prepared to be more flexible regarding economic incentives, praising the South's recent energy proposal (which presumably lays to rest the resumption of the 1994 Agreed Framework's ill-fated light water reactor (LWR) project). Secretary Rice has cautioned that "North Korea's energy needs will be considered only after North Korea agrees to dismantle completely its nuclear weapons program." [emphasis added] This is significant since the original Washington position was that no rewards would be provided until dismantlement was complete. While Washington is still not prepared to "reward bad behavior" in advance, it seems willing to allow Seoul and others to do so in return for North Korea's agreement to dismantle, with rewards no doubt timed to coincide with concrete actions by Pyongyang. (This flexibility was signaled in last June's U.S.-tabled proposal but without the specific plan now being offered by the ROK.)

While the negotiating process promises to be a long, drawn-out one, observers will have an early indication of Pyongyang's seriousness. This can be summed up in one word: uranium. The crisis began with the revelation that North Korea had a clandestine uranium-based weapons program that subverted the 1994 U.S.-DPRK agreement to denuclearize the peninsula in return for energy assistance (heavy fuel oil deliveries, followed by the construction of two LWRs). According to the U.S., Pyongyang privately acknowledged the program but now publicly denies this. "Complete" denuclearization requires Pyongyang to acknowledge all its nuclear programs.

Again there is some hope. The U.S. has been claiming that the North has a (weapons-related) highly enriched uranium program. According to Chinese interlocutors, while the North rejects this claim it has been more circumspect about the existence of a possible (energy-related) uranium enrichment program. Acknowledging the centrifuges that Washington has firm evidence Pyongyang has acquired but claiming that they were for a peaceful fuel fabrication program - while not necessarily credible - would provide one way to get past this hurdle.

If Pyongyang really accepts the ROK offer to satisfy the North's electrical energy needs, then it no longer needs a peaceful nuclear energy program and can give up (or, more likely, sell back) its uranium enrichment equipment. There is also the "A.Q. Kim option," where the North can suddenly discover a rouge scientist conducting programs behind the Dear Leader's back - outlandish as this sounds, a similar cover story was used to explain Pyongyang's about-face when it acknowledged that Japanese civilians had been kidnapped.

It is too early to be either optimistic or pessimistic about the prospects for success of the talks, but how Pyongyang deals or fails to deal with the uranium issue will provide a major indication of the North's sincerity. Stay tuned.

P.S.: The North added an 11th-hour wrinkle by calling for a peace treaty to replace the 1953 Armistice. This was Pyongyang's for the asking in 1999 when, for reasons still not explained but presumed to be centered around its reluctance to sign a treaty if Seoul were a signatory, the North walked away from the Four-Party Talks (with the ROK, China, and the U.S.) which was aimed specifically at achieving that objective. It is not clear if the latest demand is for a bilateral U.S.-DPRK treaty (which Washington would and should find unacceptable) or if the DPRK is finally ready to involve the ROK in the process.

(Posted here with the permission of Pacific Forum CSIS)

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